Hopscotch: Bores and Offenses


On Tuesday I talked about the things that delighted and inspired me in Julio Cortázar's experimental novel Hopscotch. Today we're moving on to the second, less savory portion of the program:

2. Things that Bored and Offended Me

I know we're dealing with South American Lit from the 1960s here, but Cortázar's level of animosity toward women in this novel really got to me. Not only is La Maga the stereotype of the ignorant/uneducated yet "intuitive" female (dear lord, if I never read another example of "I swim in the river / she IS the river," bullshit, I will die happy). Not only does the most interesting woman in the book gain her author's approval by ridiculing other, "normal" females for her husband's voyeuristic pleasure as he hides in the closet. Not only that, but through Morelli we are introduced to the concept of the undesirable "female-reader," the lazy person who doesn't want to do any work while reading:

...the type that doesn't want any problems, but rather solutions, or false and alien problems that will allow him to suffer comfortably seated in his chair, without compromising himself in the drama that should also be his.

Okay! Fuck you too, Julio.

It's only fair to remark that the hypothetical "female-reader" seems actually to be male, but a male who is inappropriately effeminate (by which Cortázar seems to mean passive, rather than active) in his approach to reading and literature. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse. The idea that women are all right as long as they act like one of the boys is mirrored elsewhere in Hopscotch, so it makes a perverse kind of sense that men would only be acceptable as long as they don't act like women. I might go so far as to point out that using a word like "female" when what you really mean is "lazy" or "passive" is a pretty lazy lingual trick in itself, although I'm not sure how Spanish-to-English translation may have affected the "female-reader" term. I assume, however, that the "female" portion of it was not invented by the translator out of whole cloth.

Even more disturbing, there are a number of passages that seem either to make light of, or to actually praise, rape and sexual abuse. In one scene, Club member Ossip badgers La Maga into telling him about her early life in Montevideo, including a grisly rape. She doesn't want to talk about it, but eventually acquiesces - after which, club members make fun of how she "always" tells the story, belittle the seriousness of the experience, and offer joking compliments to the rapist ("That Negro was quite a guy."). (And yes, the depiction of the rape also struck me as fairly racist, incorporating the tired stereotype of the drooling, animalistic black man living in squalor and attacking an innocent, pubescent white girl.) Later on, the narrator speaks of La Maga's rapist having "dirtied and exalted" her body. Let's be clear, people: rape does not "exalt" anybody or anything. And that's not even to mention the scene in which Oliveira feels all proud of himself for "mistreating" and objectifying La Maga while having sex with her, and worries that as a result she will feel for him "that most subtle form of gratitude which turns to doglike love." This scene also features the cringe-worthy phrase "that ultimate work of knowledge which only a man can give to a woman" - which refers, nonsensically enough, to cunnilingus. Um. Dude is bohemian, but apparently not quite bohemian enough.

The narrator's/author's relationship to the characters is uneasy, and he definitely doesn't condone all their actions or attitudes. Oliveira is firmly an antihero, not a hero. However, even if half the misogyny in the novel can be passed off as thoughtful commentary on Horacio's machismo, what remains still goes beyond the normal range of casual sexism I'm ready to overlook on the basis of cultural differences. Although I hardly ever stop reading a book partway through, it grossed me out enough that I considered not reading any further. Overall I'm glad I continued; toward the end, the Talita character even began to recoup some of the respect I lost for Cortázar during the first three quarters of the book. Still, these attitudes severely tarnished my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, and Talita's assertions that she's "nobody's zombie" were, in my opinion, too little, too late.


My other main complaint is that, while much of Cortázar's narration is riveting, he does sometimes cross a line into sophomoric pseudo-intellectualism reminiscent of a stoned high-school student. To wit:

And Time? Everything begins again, there is no absolute. Then there must be feed or feces, everything becomes critical again. Desire every so often, never too different and always something else: a trick of time to create illusions. 'A love like a fire which burns eternally in the contemplation of Totality.'"

Duuuude...turn up the Zappa and pass that j!

Sometimes this kind of thing is present intentionally, to demonstrate Oliveira's pretension or intoxication, but at other times it seems sincere - and goes on, I might add, for pages and pages at a time. I think the problem is that there's a lot of Cortázar in Oliveira and Morelli. So while Cortázar is sometimes showing Oliveira/Morelli as a sophomoric windbag, at other times Cortázar himself is a sophomoric windbag. It's that much more painful because there's tangible evidence, sometimes on the previous PAGE, that the guy is a creative genius when he wants to be. Does he include all the faux philosophizing as the dreck that will make his gem-like narrative chapters shine all the brighter? If so, I hardly think it was necessary.

Up on Saturday: my thoughts on just what Cortázar's strange structural experiments do for his book as a whole (in which I return, in some degree, to being complimentary).


  • That's quite the list of bad stuff... I don't know that I'd be able to make it past the rape and "female-reader" thing. A lot of books are ruined for me in that way (I think mostly of Houellebecq when I say this).

    I look forward to hearing a bit more about the mostly good parts of the book anyway. I doubt I'll read it soon but it does sound incredibly interesting.

  • Two characteristics that would turn me off totally as well. In fact, I never made it past the first few pages of The Angel's Game because of the sexism. I do a little better with sophomoric pseudo-intellectualism, only because it generally provides a good outlet for sarcasm!

  • Whew! is right. You made me laugh several times though. It's really difficult to read books that treat women so poorly. It is even more difficult when the book is highly regarded and we are expected to be able to somehow divorce ourselves from being female. But I think it is important to not do that and to point out the good as well as the bad. Looking forward to the third and final!

  • Ouch. Okay, I'll read this book at some point, but it's good to be prepared, and I'll make sure I'm ready for some misogyny.

  • Thanks for this piece! I was definitely aware of these aspects and the rape certainly disturbed me, but the stylistic aspect of the book caught me up - it was my first experience with experimental storytelling - and I overlooked or excused things to more of an extent than I now wish. You made me laugh and got me thinking with this post, so again, thanks. I'm looking forward to Saturday! (Breaking your no internet rule again? :) )

  • I loved this post! It was spot on and made me laugh out loud. Like I said before, even though it's been a long time and I couldn't articulate the why very well, Hopscotch is one I hate-love.

  • Oh no. Here I was thinking this book sounded so awesome from your last post! I'm still interested in reading it, though. I mean, it can't possibly be as bad as Henry Miller's The Tropic of Cancer. That man should have been slapped.

  • Lena: It is incredibly interesting! Definitely. For me the bad stuff didn't cancel out the good stuff, but neither did the good stuff "make up for" the bad stuff. There is a LOT of both!

    Jill: Haha, I don't know WHAT you mean about the sarcasm! Never engage in it, myself. ;-)

  • Stefanie: I'm glad people seem to be finding it worthwhile to talk about this stuff. I am willing to overlook quite a lot in the service of inspiring prose, but Cortázar's attitude about rape was apparently the line in my head dividing the acceptable from the unacceptable.

    Dorothy: I think that approach would probably lead to a really productive reading of the book. Not feeling quite as blind-sided certainly can't hurt.

  • Sarah: I can TOTALLY understand getting caught up in Cortázar's prose! I did too. And then there were parts where I didn't. But I'm glad you got a few laughs/thoughts out of the post! (PS - Technically my Saturday post will go up late Friday night, but we'll see if I can stay away from checking on comments!)

    Lu: I'm relieved people seem to find my bitchy persona funny. Now to take over the world. :-)

  • EL Fay: Knowing your taste, I definitely think you could enjoy it, especially if (as Dorothy says) you're forewarned. I can't compare to Miller as I haven't read him, although I used to be a big fan of Anaïs Nin.

  • Aha! See, this is what I mean! I didn't comment on your reply to me on the last post, because I wanted to wait. It's not the readability, per se, or the content, even, of experimental lit that bothers me. And when it's done well, I LOVE something that plays with what I expect, I do. Modern Art is much the same way - something beautiful and exciting is wonderful, but the problem is that, it's too easy to take 'experiment' to mean 'write something weird, that sounds smart'. And what that creates is a sort of arrogance sometimes - an arrogance that makes faults, like those you describe in this review, that aren't even necessarily linked to the experiment itself. An experimental work can 'get away with' a lot, which is the great and the terrible thing about it. And it's not even what it does to the book - although a book that advocates a vision of women as objects is one that I gutturally am going to have trouble enjoying. It's what it does to me - the experimental style opens up my brain, unravels my defenses, makes me receptive. Then, when I'm most vulnerable, naked to the author's whiles, the author pours in slop and filth and things that if they were written in a straightforward novel I'd throw it at the wall. Reading something experimental, for me, takes a great deal of trust, I have to trust that, before I undress for the author, that they will help me dress again in something beautiful, you know? This is the STRENGTH of an experimental style too, of course, it's why I am glad I read James Joyce. But, it puts a lot of responsibility on the author, a responsibility that's difficult to enforce - in part, simply because the form is so 'there' that it's what critics focus on. So, they fail to notice the content of the form, and look over a 'happy rape' or racism, or whatever, because the author is just such a damned good writer.

    Sorry, a little ranty, that. Hope that clarifies a little though. I LOVE experimentalism, as a power, I just hate that it is so often misused.

  • Jason: No, don't apologize! I think your rant is fascinating, even if I'm not sure I 100% understand it.

    So, what I hear you saying is that, while things like misogyny and self-satisfaction don't necessarily occur at higher frequencies in experimental literature (I don't know - ARE you saying that?), you as a reader find them more insidious because you're simultaneously distracted by the form of the prose (so you won't identify flaws and throw the book at the wall as quickly) and you're also divested of some of the defenses you keep up while reading more straightforward narratives, since you have to bend your mind in unaccustomed ways. Is that anywhere close to what you were actually saying?

    I can see how one might have that relationship with experimentalism, that it's a more intimate experience. For me, it doesn't particularly seem more intimate than most other forms of literature. I'd actually say for me the most intimate forms of narrative are those first-person stories in which the narrative voice is so infectious and/or compelling that I start to feel like I'm walking around with another real person in my head. (I'm thinking of those in the tradition of Huck Finn - Catcher in the Rye & Gilead are two that really speak to me like that.) Those are the ones, for me, where I'm tempted to ignore ideological differences and just coast on the infectiousness of the voice. Experimental lit, as a whole doesn't uniformly strike me PERSONALLY as requiring more trust than so-called traditional narratives. But I can totally see how that would be the case for someone else.

    But I don't know...I'm having a hard time relating to this correlation that you seem to be making between experimentalism and arrogance/misogyny. The three things are all certainly present in Hopscotch, but I don't feel like one is a result of any other, or even more likely to occur when the other is present. I mean, there are plenty of traditionally-written arrogant and misogynist books, and quite a few progressive-for-their-time experimenters (Woolf, Stein, Kincaid & Morrison leap to mind). Certainly the number of times I've overlooked misogyny, racism, arrogance or other flaws because of the high quality of the prose are too numerous to count, and most of them have been traditional narratives. (KIPLING, for heaven's sake!) It's not really been my experience that authors of traditional narratives are more humble or enlightened than those writing experimentally.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think Cortázar's biggest weakness for me - his misogyny - is linked very much to his experimentalism. I think if he wrote a completely straight, 19th-century-style novel, it would be just as misogynist and arrogant. I don't think he set out to write a weird, smart-sounding book and that that resulted in the rape-is-no-big-deal scene; I think he had a vision for the novel as a whole, which he pursued, but that incidentally, as it happens, he doesn't have a lot of respect for women. I think one just has to keep one's critical thinking skills intact, regardless of what kind of novel one's reading.

  • Ms Emily - thanks, I very much see your point, and you have me thinking, now. But I won't clutter you up with an epic comment, I'll write it up in a post over the next few days...

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography